They’re the toast of Hollywood and a studio exec’s wet dream, but are we disillusioned by Superhero films, particularly in light of their box office success? Case in point, the forgettable but still lucrative Ironman 2. Then there’s one of the best blockbusters you can find – The Avengers. With DC’s Justice league on the way – experiencing its own faults in development – we have a film that in theory should at least attempt to be more than just a money spinner, but if its not a financial success first, then the studios will inevitably pull the plug on any follow-ups. As we’ve learned, creative ingenuity, artistic expression and depth can be packaged in a film with mass appeal, but usually, the powers that be still see it as too risky to bother.
This then, is about the ‘downfall’ of comic book movie adaptations, before it even got a chance to stand up properly.
Ruled by the two obligatory power houses (two rivaling families if you will) of comicbook-dom Marvel and DC, but brought to the silver screen by a host of film studios; we’ve seen flashes of brilliance, but ultimately, what we’re getting is the typical half-baked blockbuster fodder.
Easily, the one that stands without peer is The Dark Knight. That film has become a fulcrum for the sub-genre, and simultaneously, the pinnacle. People will claim that Marvel is challenging that title with The Avengers, but realistically, looking beyond mere box-office earnings, TDK is in a league of its own.
What Marvel does have plenty of right now, is momentum, and above all, consistency. The first two Ironman films were average, but everything since then has either stepped things up or maintained their level of quality whilst expanding and sowing more strands into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve successfully maintained a singular creative brains trust to align the greater vision of where they’re going, and though it has its benefits, this is not a faultless plan. In and amongst all that though, is the plain fact that the majority of Marvel’s films are grossly formulaic with thin plot lines as each of them are riddled with plot conveniences. But yes, they are fun to watch – the thing is though that that doesn’t really bode well for longevity’s sake.
Their problem is a disjointed vision, or prior to Man of Steel, no vision at all – no one seems to have a clear idea of where they’re ultimately going, and though they’ve stumbled along – on the back of Nolan’s successful Batman reboot – to a creative duo of Zack Snyder and David S Goyer (secured for several films), what’s evident is that these two are not entirely the most adept choices, having already demonstrated their lack of understanding of the character of Superman. However, they are working on the sequel, and will thereafter helm the planned ‘Justice League’ project (at least Goyer is pegged for writing credits, time will tell if Snyder takes the reins, or if they’ll be offered to Ben Affleck), and by the time that comes, they will have developed a better understanding to hopefully deliver a product more cohesive and resonant than their first collaboration ‘Man of Steel’. The relative consistency and stability of the pairing (with the addition of Ben Affleck) is perhaps the one positive (behind the camera).
The other advantage DC has, is full creative control of all their characters.
Although riding the crest of the wave, financially, Marvel’s film franchise is not without fault. Despite having an array of directors and writers at the helm of various projects, they’ve still somehow managed to carry the same aesthetic .
Of course Marvel doesn’t have the film rights to many top characters, including the massive roster contracted to FOX Studios.
But, despite this, is there room to improve?
Of course, most definitely, but it applies more to DC. Marvel films, although good in execution, are never really that deep and tend to employ a formula for CGI action films. This ‘lightness’ is key to their success because it allows adults and kids alike to enjoy the fun, hence the box office success with such a wide and ever growing demographic. There’s nothing wrong with the PG13 film mind you, nor is there anything wrong with DC’s decidedly darker ‘adult themed’ take, but as the latter house has moved into the post-Nolan era, it sees itself more and more steering toward that very audience. The recognition has been made, especially since Superman has such wide appeal, that they and Warner Bros should be cashing it in too.
But, once again, as TDK proved – also surprisingly a PG13 film (though this is a contentious topic as there’s been quite an outcry about the level of violence within films bearing that very MPAA rating; it certainly isn’t what it used to be) – all you really need is to make a damn good film and people will see it. Much of Marvel’s success can be credited to the strides Nolan, Xmen and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman made as audiences have learned to trust the genre again for good clean entertainment. And likewise with the studios; as we now know, this is the prime source for tent-pole material in the current age along with YA books, hence FOX rebooting the Xmen franchise with First Class, bringing back Brian Singer and continuing their squeeze on Marvel’s characters, milking them for all they’re worth; simply put, Fox cannot afford to lose this franchise, that’s just bad for business.
Marvel have however successfully drawn in audiences to root for characters many knew nothing or very little about, luring in a totally new demographic. Several second tier characters were never as widely popular as say Spiderman. Take Captain America; Few really cared for or were exposed to him outside the US; Thor, was too one-dimensional not to mention risky a-la-Wonder Woman; and then the one that spring boarded it all for Marvel Studios, Ironman, a character many knew about but weren’t that invested in. Now of course we’ll see the excitable entrance of the even lesser known left field and riskiest bet ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (I knew them by name mostly) and later Ant-Man. But surely the most anticipated (overdue) entrance is that of Black Panther, which is sure to be thoroughbred when it lands.
… that all is well with Marvel. For a while I falsely believed that – regarding the 3rd rate version we’re dealing with – if Xmen were to return to Marvel we’d get the real deal, but it isn’t quite so; and the root of this misconception lies mainly in the parent company controlling Marvel. The truth is that the real Xmen will never be realized, even under the current administration at Marvel – why? One word: Disney! (Okay, maybe “never” is too strong, but it applies at least to the foreseeable future)
Although they claim to have allowed Marvel full reign over its own characters, the Walt Disney influence is apparent in the current crop of films; as mentioned, all decidedly light weight in execution to reap financial rewards. Take Captain America: The First Avenger – debatably the best origin story of the Avengers – yet it still dealt with issues like WWII and Hitler with kid gloves and then shifted focus from Nazis to the rather (ironically) cartoonish villain Red Skull and his HYDRA organization… avoiding the ‘Captain America punches Hitler storyline’, all because it fits better in the greater MCU. Part of what makes Superheroes great is that they overcome very bad villains – and at the moment, the only interesting villain Marvel has offered is Loki, and he’s still a sort of antihero – a sympathetic bad guy… Red Skull, Malekith, Aldrich Killian, Mickey Rourke in Ironman 2, fake Mandarin – they all have one thing in common: NOT that interesting!
The Marvel Universe is both their greatest asset and perhaps a tourniquet as well. Robert Downey Jr alluded to certain constrictions of ‘living’ in this universe as he contemplates hanging up his Ironman suit for good, and the issue of who will replace the rostrum of actors currently filling their beloved roles. Already Chris Evans has said he’ll take a break once his Marvel contract expires.
Of course DC doesn’t have that predicament (if it is indeed a predicament), though they are seemingly pushing toward that line of thought with their new found enthusiasm for TV shows (perhaps on the back of Smallville) after the positive reception of Arrow, and their subsequent commitment to Flash, Gotham et al. They’ve retreaded their film franchise, transplanting superpowered heroes into the ‘dark/gritty universe’ created by Nolan, but that’s still having teething problems. However there’s always the realistic scenario of them pushing the reset button yet again when this binge runs its course. With TDK DC had the upper hand, but then proceeded to slowly shoot themselves in the foot with what followed, they’re limping on, and we’ll see for how long – only time will tell.
Another misconception is that The Dark Knight trilogy was “dark”. The truth is that TDK was a great crime saga that happened to contain a caped crusader; many likening it to a modern day Goodfellas with a Batman twist, but many of the darker scenes and brutal actions were subtlety brushed over to cater for a younger audience, as well as the fact that we never actually see that many people die in Gotham, leaving a lot of violent acts to your imagination. What I’m saying is that it was artfully ‘diluted’ for a wider audience… because quite frankly the real Dark Knight is actually pretty scary. As I remarked in my piece ‘The Dark Knight Rises debate continues’; we still have not received the Batman we deserve. Simply because studios aren’t willing to risk it – this is not a symptom of comicbook-film adaptations though, this is a Hollywood studio problem (I’ll expand on this in a future article – Watch this space)!
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